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The tale of diplomatic gifts

Huzaima Bukhari

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it”— Frédéric Bastiat

A gift is usually permanent. Creditors may forcefully take their money back from debtors, purchases can be got refunded and a disgruntled client can demand fees from its service provider, but no one asks for return of the gift once it is given unless it is the case of a belligerent husband and wife fighting a separation suit.

Exchange of diplomatic gifts, between heads of states is a centuries’ old practice. It is a gesture to promote not only one’s traditions and culture but it also plays a pivotal role in establishing friendly and peaceful relations and in the event of animosity between two countries, gifts mean that they are coming together for rapprochement. Even otherwise, in civilized societies when people visit their acquaintances’ homes, they usually bring along some token of love and affection for their hosts as a mark of appreciating their hospitality. However, in the world of diplomacy intentions need not necessarily be altruistic, the giver usually has the upper hand and the recipient is expected to reciprocate. Also, it must be remembered that these gifts are meant for the country and are not overtures of a personal nature for whosoever is the head of state.

At the time of independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited its administrative system from the British which was moulded on the lines of keeping the ‘subjects’ under strict control. Since the new political set-up of this new-born country was not motivated to formulate an original mode of governance, it conveniently adopted the processes left here by the departing colonizers. While some of their legacies related to treating the common man like a slave or the ‘queen’s subject’ there are others which would have benefitted the country had those been implemented with sincerity. This is a topic that can be heatedly debated but here the main issue pertains to law and rules, dos and don’ts regarding diplomatic gifts.

A look in the past would reveal that under the British rule, officials of the East India Company were forbidden from taking diplomatic gifts. In case a certain convention required an official to accept one, it was supposed to be deposited in the company’s treasury (locally known as toshakhana , a Persian word and as such adopted by Pakistan as well). Almost all countries of the world have such repositories to store diplomatic gifts, which in the days of yore principally comprised weapons, jewels or bejewelled items that could easily be stacked up in a chamber. These days, the nature of gifts has changed substantially with modern and hi-tech gadgets becoming more popular. These include, from expensive personal use items to armoured vehicles and even exotic animals.

Now there are two categories of official recipients of gifts. One comprises members of the civil/military services on whom Government Servants (Conduct) Rules, 1964 apply and which strictly prohibit them and their dependents from receiving gifts of any kind. Where the situation is such that refusal could be offensive, then the gift has to be deposited in the Toshakhana. According to rule (7) that reads as under:

“The value of gifts shall be assessed by the Cabinet Division and the monetary limits up to which and the condition subject to which, the gifts may be allowed to be retained by the recipient shall be as follows:- (a) gifts valued upto Rs. 1,000 may be allowed to be retained by the recipient; (b) gifts valued between Rs. 1,000 and 5,000 may be allowed to be retained by a recipient on his paying 25% of the value of the gift in excess of Rs. 1,000; and (c) gifts of value exceeding Rs. 5,000 may, be allowed to be retained by a recipient on his paying 25% of so much of the value as exceeds Rs. 1,000 but does not exceed Rs. 5,000 and 15% of so much of the value as exceeds Rs. 5,000.”

So, for example, if an artefact valuing Rs. 100,000 is to be acquired, the amount to be paid would be calculated as under:

25% of 4,000  –         1,000

15% of 95,000 =        14,250

Total                            15,250

The other category is that of elected public office holders whose conduct is governed by Holders of Representative Offices’ (Punishment for Misconduct) Order, 1977 that is extremely stringent with respect to their activities. Article 3 outrightly forbids office holders like the president, prime minister, senators and parliamentarians from receiving any form of gift either for themselves or their dependents and declares such an act as committal of the offence of misconduct. There is nothing parallel to rule (7) of Government Servants (Conduct) Rules, 1964 that permits retention of a gift after some nominal payment which clearly means that gifts cannot be retained at any cost. In the USA if an outgoing president wants to keep a certain gift, its market price has to be paid upfront but nothing of this sort exists in Pakistan.

Former president Asif Zardari and prime minister Nawaz Sharif have been indicted by the judge of an anti-graft court for the retention of BMW750Li, Lexus Jeep, BMW760Li and a Mercedes gifted by different foreign states to Pakistan. These vehicles, the combined value of which could be in hundreds of millions could not be possessed under any circumstances even if it meant approving a summary of payment of 15% by the prime minister, an act which in itself is illegal as it is not endorsed by any law applicable to elected public representatives and who are definitely not governed by Government Servants (Conduct) Rules, 1964.

In a letter to the editor, published in Pakistan Today, dated 8 September 2020. Mr. Ali Malik notes while commenting upon the report of indictment and declaring these gifts as most expensive:

“To set record straight this malpractice and irregularity started in 1963 when US Government gifted Ghandhara Motors which was retained by family of former military dictator Ayub Khan. This was the most expensive gift ever given by any foreign government to Pakistan.”

This legacy of plunder and loot which allegedly started off from a wrong precedent set by one of the most notable, though self-styled leader remains intact to this day. Progress, accountability, uplifting of the poor, establishing rule of law, reformation of public institutions, protection of women and children have all been subjected to short shrift but when it comes to filling the bellies of the well-off ravenous public representatives, there is absolute consistency. Rules and procedures are shoved aside to make room for illegalities which when nabbed, let out screams from the marauders as if pandemonium has broken loose. Pakistan is just like the golden nightingale for these culprits as India once was for the British colonists. By continuously electing them into power, the innocent voters are actually sawing the bough on which they are perched.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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